Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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WindyCon: Fairy tales

So, I moderated my first panel yesterday! Knowing I was going to moderate made me do a lot of homework — ordinarily I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of panelist, probably not surprising since I’m also a figure-it-out-as-you-go-along writer. But this time I totally cheated by coming up with a long list of questions (and answers) before the panel, starting with “What are fairy tales anyway?” and reading Tolkien’s long essay on the subject (“On Fairy-Stories”) to extract possible answers.

The other panelists were Lou Anders, , A.Lee Martinez, F. Salvatini, J. Stockman, and T. Bogolub. Lee Martinez is the author guest of honor here at WindyCon, so there’s that. He was a funny guy and actually got me interested in looking up his most recent novel, Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest, which would not ordinarily really sound like my thing. It has a female teenage minotaur as one of the protagonists (Helen). And Lou Anders has his first book out, Frostborn, a MG which draws on Norse mythology and got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly.

Anyway, back to the topic, Tolkien asserted that fairy stories are defined by “taking place in Fairie,” by a numinous sense of wonder, and by a sudden “turn” toward an ending that is not just happy, but joyous. I basically agree with these points, and you can sure see the “joyous ending” in Tolkien’s own Lord of the Rings, though then he went on to a more bittersweet ending at the very end, of course.

Anyway, all the panelists basically agreed about the magic of a fairy tale being different from the more codified types of magic of much of the rest of secondary world fantasy. The rules are those of Fairie, there are no explanations for the magic, there just *is* an enchanted forest and things just *are* magic.

Incidentally, I think there are four categories of fairy tales — I’m not sure this came out in the panel, so I’ll share it with you all here:

a) traditional fairy tales; eg The Tales of the Brothers Grimm
b) close retellings; eg Beauty by Robin McKinley or The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
c) lose retellings; eg Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge or Cinder by Marissa Meyer
d) stories that are not based on traditional fairy tales at all, but are fairy tales because of their use of magic and their tone. Examples would include The Changeling Sea by McKillip, The Shapechanger’s Wife by Sharon Shinn, or The City in the Lake by me.

There are also stories that draw very lightly on the fairy tale tradition without really being fairy tales, like Laura Florand’s The Chocolate Rose, though I didn’t really think of that till this minute.

Anyway, it was a good panel; luckily the audience helped absorb the full ninety minutes, which was a long time. I was surprised that no one mentioned Patricia McKillip until I dragged her forcibly into the discussion. Her Song for the Basilisk strikes me as especially suitable for a discussion about fairy tales, because first the whole story is a fairy tale and second when the protagonist goes to the hinterlands, he is stepping into Fairie, so that particular story is layered with different layers of Fairie.

Today’s panel is on writing disabled characters, and thanks to you all I have lots to say about the topic, so I’ll let you know how it goes later.

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2 Comments WindyCon: Fairy tales

  1. Maureen E

    People never seem to think of McKillip! Maybe because she isn’t usually strictly retelling a particular story. But still!

    It sounds like an interesting panel, and I love Tolkien’s essay.

  2. Rachel

    At least one person in the audience apparently hadn’t heard of McKillip at all. Now she has! So that’s one good thing.

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